GAZA/JERUSALEM, July 18 (Reuters) - Israel stepped up its ground offensive in Gaza early on Friday pounding targets with artillery fire and using tanks and infantry to battle Hamas fighters.
Orange flashes illuminated the eastern Gaza Strip as Israeli gunboats off the Mediterranean coast fired shells and tracer bullets, and helicopters fired across the border. Hamas fired rockets back into Israel towards the southern towns of Ashdod and Ashkelon.
Palestinian health officials said 23 Palestinians had been killed since Israel launched its ground offensive against the densely-populated strip of 1.8 million Palestinians on Thursday. Israel said one of its soldiers had been killed in fighting.
A video clip released by the military showed six tanks rolling in through the sand dunes of Gaza, after a soldier opened a border fence, and two long rows of foot soldiers.
"We are using a very high level of fire power and artillery," Israeli military spokesman Brigadier General Motti Almoz said.
"A great number of soldiers are in action in the Gaza Strip, soldiers are overtaking their targets, tunnels, Hamas targets," Almoz said, and several "points of friction" with gunmen.
Israel signaled the invasion would be limited in scope - targeting tunnels dug by gunmen - and said it was not intended to topple Hamas, the Gaza Strip's dominant Islamist group.
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri responded with defiance, saying, "we warn (Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu of the dreadful consequences of such a foolish act".
Live television showed interceptions of rockets by Israel's Iron Dome anti-missile system and no casualties were reported.
Almoz said one one soldier had been killed and several wounded in fighting Israeli media said was concentrated in several areas in the north and south of the territory.
The soldier was Israel's second fatality in eleven days of fighting which spilled over into a land offensive late on Thursday. A rocket attack killed a civilian two days ago.
In all, 251 Palestinians, most of them civilians, have been killed since the fighting began on July 8, Israel bombarding Gaza while Hamas launched rockets against Israel.
Israeli military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner said on Twitter Israel had killed 14 Palestinian gunmen in "exchanges of fire throughout Gaza" and destroyed 20 rocket launchers.
Hamas's armed wing said in a statement they had detonated three explosives in northern Gaza and "clashes are ongoing". It also said its fighters had repelled Israeli forces trying to enter another Gaza town, Beit Hanoun, wounding seven soldiers.
Israel began the air and sea offensive in what it called a response to mounting rocket salvos, more than 100 a day, fired by Gaza militants into its cities, sending hundreds of thousands of Israelis dashing to shelters as far north as the Tel Aviv business hub.
At least 20 more rockets were fired at Israel on Friday, a military spokeswoman said.
DEFIANCE, "DREADFUL CONSEQUENCES"
A statement from Netanyahu's office late on Thursday said he had given orders to destroy tunnels that militants use to infiltrate Israel and carry out attacks.
The current conflict was largely triggered by the killing of three Israeli teens in the occupied West Bank last month and the death on July 2 of a Palestinian youth in a suspected revenge murder.
Israel briefly held its fire on Tuesday after Egypt, which is also Gaza's neighbor, announced a truce plan; but Hamas and other militant groups rejected the proposal, saying it had not addressed their demands.
"The directive for ground action was approved by the security cabinet after Israel agreed to the Egyptian ceasefire proposal, whereas Hamas rejected it and continued firing rockets at Israeli cities," the statement from Netanyahu's office said.
TANKS ROLL IN
The fighting has been the worst between Israel and Palestinians in two years. The United Nations Security Council will meet on Friday to discuss the developments.
The U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, speaking after the announcement of the ground assault, implored Israel to do more to stop Palestinian civilian deaths.
A statement from the Israeli military said another 18,000 reserve soldiers would be mobilized to join more than 30,000 already called up.
Hamas wants Israel and Egypt, whose military-backed government is at odds with the Islamist movement, to lift border restrictions that have deepened economic hardship in the territory. Hamas is also suffering from a cash crunch, unable to pay its employees in Gaza for months.
Fighting resumed immediately after the end of a five-hour humanitarian truce on Thursday requested by the United Nations to allow Palestinians to stock up on food.
Hamas leaders have talked up their "tunnel campaign" against the Israeli enemy. One publicity video showed Palestinian fighters hauling rockets through a narrow passage to load onto a launcher that appears buried in an orchard. It is then fired remotely after its mechanized cover slides open.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius will visit the Middle East on Friday to try to defuse the crisis, and for discussions about putting a European mission on the Gaza-Israel border, a diplomatic source said on Thursday.
Israel last mounted a large-scale invasion of the Gaza Strip during a three-week war in late 2008 and early 2009 that claimed 1,400 Palestinian and 13 Israeli lives. (Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Additional reporting by Noah Browning in GAZA and Michelle Nichols in NEW YORK; Editing by Howard Goller and Ralph Boulton)
BEFORE YOU GO
08/08/2014 2:47 PM EDT
White House Concerned By Renewed Fighting
The White House on Friday urged Israel and the Palestinians to resume talks and do what they can to protect civilians after Egyptian-mediated negotiations failed to extend a ceasefire and rocket fire resumed.
"The United States is very concerned about today's developments in Gaza," White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters.
"We condemn the renewed rocket fire and we are concerned about the safety and security of civilians on both sides of that conflict," he said.
08/08/2014 1:42 PM EDT
Official: 5 Palestinians Killed In Gaza
Five Palestinians, including a 10-year-old boy, have been killed in Israeli airstrikes on Gaza since a ceasefire fell apart on Friday, a Palestinian medical official reported to Agence France Presse.
Meanwhile, the Israeli army said Palestinian militants fired 35 rockets into Israel on Friday, injuring a soldier and a civilian.
The father of a ten-year old Palestinian boy, who was killed in an Israeli air strike on the Sheikh Radwan neighbourhood in northern Gaza City, mourns at the city's Al-Shifa hospital, on August 8, 2014. (MOHAMMED ABED/AFP/Getty Images)
08/08/2014 9:23 AM EDT
Palestinian Delegation Says Gaza Talks Will Continue
Palestinian factions will remain in Cairo and press on with Egyptian-mediated talks despite the end of the ceasefire in Gaza, the head of the delegation, Fatah official Azzam Ahmed, said on Friday.
"We are not for escalation. We are ready to continue through our Egyptian brothers in negotiating to reach a final agreement that would return the rights to their owners," Ahmed said. "I mean here lifting the blockade of Gaza."
Ahmed said Palestinian negotiators were due to meet Egyptian intelligence officials, who have been mediating the talks, later in the day. He said Palestinian factions were united in their decision not to extend the 72-hour truce that ended at 0500 GMT and had been clear about their basic demands to end the conflict.
08/08/2014 9:13 AM EDT
Egypt: Agreement Close In Gaza Talks
Egypt called on Friday for an immediate resumption of the ceasefire in Gaza and a return to the negotiating table, saying that only a few outstanding issues remained in negotiations it was mediating between Israel and the Palestinians.
"The foreign ministry calls on all sides to rise to their responsibilities ... and to return immediately to the ceasefire commitment and exploit the opportunity available to resume negotiations on the very limited sticking points that remain in the fastest possible time," the foreign ministry said in a statement.
08/08/2014 3:58 AM EDT
Israeli Airstrikes On Gaza Resume
BREAKING: Israel says it's resumed strikes on Gaza in response to rocket fire, after end of 3-day truce.— The Associated Press (@AP) August 8, 2014
08/08/2014 3:02 AM EDT
Cease-Fire Ends With New Rocket Attacks
A 72-hour cease-fire expired at 8 a.m. today, and not long after, Gaza militants began firing rockets at Israel, The Associated Press reported.
The Israeli military said at least 10 rockets had been fired at Israel since the truce ended. Prior to the attacks, a senior official for Hamas said the militant groups would not extend the cease-fire.
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08/06/2014 2:46 PM EDT
Official: Israel Agrees To Extend Ceasefire
Israel has conditionally agreed to extend a ceasefire that ended a month of fighting in Gaza beyond a Friday deadline, an Israeli official said on Wednesday, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The official did not say for how much longer Israel had agreed to extend the truce, only that: "Israel has expressed its readiness to extend the truce under its current terms," referring to the deal brokered by Egypt that took effect on Tuesday.
Hamas had no immediate comment.
08/06/2014 2:12 PM EDT
IDF: Rocket Sirens Were False Alarm
IDF confirms rocket sirens in southern Israel were false alarm http://t.co/QN677jtlXE— Haaretz.com (@haaretzcom) August 6, 2014
08/06/2014 1:18 PM EDT
Report: Rocket Sirens Sound At Gaza Border
ABC Foreign Editor Jon Williams reports that the IDF have confirmed the rocket sirens are sounding, but are checking to see if it is a false alarm.
08/05/2014 4:20 PM EDT
Israel Arrests Kidnapping Suspect
Reuters reports that Israel has arrested one of the suspects in the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank in June.
Hussam Kawasme, a 40-year-old resident of the West Bank city of Hebron, was arrested on July 11 in connection with the killing of Israelis Gil-Ad Shaer, Naftali Fraenkel and Eyal Yifrah, who went missing on June 12 and were discovered dead a couple of weeks later.
Their kidnapping sparked a cycle of violence that led to the month-long conflict between Israel and Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip.
Kawasme's arrest was made public for the first time on Tuesday in a document from an Israeli court case over whether houses belonging to him and two other suspects - who remain at large - should be destroyed as a punitive measure.
The lawyers listed as representing Kawasme were not reachable for comment.
The court document said Kawasme had admitted to helping to organize the kidnapping - securing funding from the Hamas Islamist group in Gaza and purchasing weapons which he passed on to the two other suspects who carried out the attack.
Kawasme also helped to bury the bodies of the teenagers in a plot of land he had bought a few months earlier, it said.
Israel has named the other two suspects in the case as Marwan Kawasme and Amar Abu Aysha.